A Better Way to Study (and teach) History-Part 1



George-WashingtonWhy History Matters

A few years ago I was chatting with a teenage guy and the topic of history came up. He wasn’t particularly interested in history. He asked, “Why should I care about things that happened before I was even born?”

For a moment I was speechlessat that statement. His assumption seemed to be that he was the center of the universe and that therefore anything that happened in the world before he came into it just didn’t matter. Later the topic came up again and I told him that if certain things hadn’t happened before he was born, he wouldn’t have been born at all. We continued from there and he seemed to take the topic a bit more seriously. You can sometimes tell when a young person has gotten his ideas from other young people rather than from those older.

Other than the study of Scripture, I think you could make a good case for history as the most important subject found in a general curriculum list. Stop and think about it. Aside from divine revelation, what do we know of the future other than what we’ve learned from the past?

But that’s not the common viewpoint these days. Today, marketers hype us up with the phrase, “new and improved.” The underlying assumption is that the two terms are interchangeable. If it’s new, it has to be better than what came before. Of course that’s the result of evolution’s influence on our educational system. We really think that everything is getting better. Scripture, on the other hand tells us that ultimately there is nothing new under the sun. Lesson: we’d better pay attention to what’s happened in the past, because it’s going to happen again.

Why is history important? That’s the subject for a long book, not a blog article. But here are a few reasons that I am passionate about history education, both for myself and for my children:

–History provides us with heroes. Not guys who can throw balls through hoops or coax agonized shrieks fromRobert E. Lee tortured electric guitars, but people of true greatness: George Washington; Thomas Jefferson; Robert E. Lee; George Muller; John Wesley; Jonathan Edwards etc. Proverbs tells us that as a man thinks in his heart, so is he. In other words, we become what we think about. History gives us thousands of years’ worth of great people and great events to keep us from wallowing in the cheap, shallow values and attitudes of people called “heroes” today. How many teenagers do you know who have posters of the Founding Fathers on their bedroom walls rather than rock stars?

–History teaches us that our lives matter. When we know about the way our predecessors lived and how those lives impact ours for good or ill centuries later, it supercharges our time with significance. Yes, it matters how I spend my time. Because my time is my life and the choices I make determine whether I invest it in lasting things or waste it on trivialities. Familiarity with history is a constant reminder that I must choose whether future generations are blessed or cursed because I came before them, or whether they will even know I ever existed. America is what she is partly because George Washington succeeded and Benedict Arnold failed. The lessons of their lives will be forgotten at our peril.

–History illustrates the cause-and-effect sequences of life. In a way, history books—including biographies—are science books. The millennia of human experience on this earth, to the extent that they have been recorded, provide us with innumerable examples of how certain actions create certain results, over and over and over. For an example, Proverbs says that “the hand of the diligent maketh rich.” Benjamin Franklin observed that, wrote about it, and lived it out. He worked hard even as a boy and became one of the wealthiest men in the country. And his wealth wasn’t just material. He was also rich in wisdom, knowledge and the respect of his fellow men. He was the most widely known and respected American of his time. Late in life he wrote to his son, quoting Proverbs 22:29: “Seest thou a man diligent in his business? He shall stand before kings; he shall not stand before mean (unimportant) men.” Franklin went on to credit his lifelong diligence with the fact that he himself had “stood before five kings, and supped with two.” Ben also wrote to his son about some of the mistakes and failures he had experienced in his long life as well.

Is history important? I guess only if you want your child to be challenged by great people of the past to aspire to do great things himself. Or if you want him to understand that how he spends his life can impact the lives of millions in the future. Or if you want him to learn the crucial lessons of life from the experience of those who have gone before, rather than making all the mistakes himself.

That’s why the events of the past matter- even if we weren’t around when they happened.


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